Poison, murder and a blood-red soda: How a Nicaraguan staple ended up in Miami

With its plain red can and a description only as “red soda,” Milca doesn’t stand out in the soda aisle.

But the story of how Nicaragua’s favorite red soft drink ended up at your South Florida grocery store has more twists than your abuela’s favorite telenovela.

Milca soda turns 60 this year — in exile. It was first brewed in 1959 in Nicaragua and became the country’s most popular soft drink not named Coke or Pepsi after a national scandal involving a murdered wealthy businessman. And it ended up in Miami after the Sandinista revolution of the late 1970s.

“It’s crazy and unexpected,” said Javier Cuadra, the 28-year-old president of Milca, who single-handedly runs the company his great-grandfather founded.

And throughout, Milca has remained quietly popular by making only one simple claim on its can for the last 60 years: It’s red. If the color red has a flavor — and what Milca tastes like is hotly debated — that flavor would be Milca.

“Every little kid ran around at birthday parties with that red mustache,” Cuadra said. “That red just sticks to you.”

Milca Bottling Co. President and CEO Javier Cuadra shows the canned and bottled Milca soft drink. His family invented the Nicaraguan soft drink Milca Roja 60 years ago. Al Diaz

Cuadra’s great-great-grandfather, Julio Lacayo first brought the carbonated fruit-flavored drink craze from England to Nicaragua in 1920, Cuadra said, when he opened a bottling plant in Leon.

The sodas were called chibolas, the Nicaraguan slang for the clear glass marble used in the closure (the Japanese soda Ramuné still does this). His Chibolería Lacayo produced four flavors, not named after taste but color: orange, purple, yellow and red.

Red became the top seller. And when the family bought the rights to be the exclusive Coca-Cola distributors in Nicaragua, Lacayo’s son Manuel built a whole new brand in 1959 around that color and his initials: Manuel Ignacio Lacayo Compañia Anónima.

Milca had given the color red a flavor and a name. Officially, the flavor is raspberry.

“People say it tastes like all sorts of stuff — bubblegum, whatever — but it’s the same flavor as 60 years ago,” Cuadra said.

Milca might have just been a niche product — if not for the murder. Nicaragua was stunned when one of the country’s wealthy businessmen, Nicolas Bolaños, was found poisoned to death in 1963.

During a scandalous investigation, Bolaños’ American-born daughter-in-law was first accused of the crime. That charge was later revealed to be a ploy by the military to foment anti-American sentiment, according to an in-depth recounting of the investigation and trial cataloged at the Enrique Bolaños library.

The actual story would make for a great telenovela.

A sordid trial revealed Nicolas Bolaños had discovered one of his employees had embezzled money to pay for an abortion (illegal in Nicaragua at the time) and fired her. She took revenge, the trial found, when she slipped the poison strychnine into the soda he drank every day at 5 p.m., at the end of every workday.

That drink: a cold, frosty Milca.

Milca Bottling Co. President & CEO, Javier Cuadra holds a vintage bottle of Milca soft drink. Al Diaz

Overnight, Milca became the white Ford Bronco in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.

“It exploded with that story,” said Elisa Cardenal, Javier Cuadra’s mother, whose grandfather founded Milca. “Because he loved Milca so much, someone used that to poison him.”

Sales of Milca shot through the roof because of the trial, Cuadra said. At one point, Milca would go on to sell 100,000 cases of soda a month. That’s 2.4 million 12-ounce bottles of Milca, giving it a 12-percent share of Nicaragua’s soda market.

Milca became a regular drink at get-togethers, birthday parties, markets and corner convenience stores. Even though Coke and Pepsi eventually began marketing their own red sodas, Milca became Nicaragua’s iconic red soda.

The story never faded from the public consciousness — Enrique Bolaños, one of Nicolas’ orphaned sons, would go on to become the president of Nicaragua from 2002-2007.

“My grandfather would always say, ‘All press is good press,’ and he would tell this story,” Javier Cuadra said.

Like so many other Nicaraguans, Cuadra’s grandfather, Ramiro Cardenal, fled the country in 1978 with his wife and four children, just ahead of Sandinista rebels overthrowing the Nicaraguan government the next year. They settled in Coconut Grove.

As other Nicaraguans resettled in Miami, he thought the time was right to bring them a taste of their home country. In 1988, he contracted 7 Up to bottle Milca at their Doral plant using the original formula, and he signed a deal with local distributors, who took the drink to other cities where Nicaraguans had settled.

Milca quietly sold on the shelves at places like Sedano’s supermarkets, where the distinctive red can was its only marketing.

When Cardenal died in 2017, his grandson Cuadra took over the company that his grandmother and uncle, in Nicaragua, still own. He has plugged it into new American markets rich with Nicaraguans and other Latinos, including Los Angeles, New York and Texas. And he is using social media to spread the word. (The Instagram model he uses to promote Milca is his cousin, a former Miss Nicaragua, Marina Jacoby.)

“For my son to continue the legacy makes me proud,” said his mother Elisa Cardenal, who focused on real estate rather than the family business.

Cuadra’s next goal: to make Milca huge in Nicaragua again.

When his family sold their rights to distribute Coca-Cola in Nicaragua in 1998, they negotiated keeping Milca. But they have no distributor in Nicaragua since Coke and Pepsi own all the bottling plants.

Today, all Milca sold in Nicaragua — only about 150,000 cases a year — is imported from Miami at a higher cost than its red Coke and Pepsi competitors.

But Cuadra, a Belen and Florida International grad, is working with Walmart to bring Milca into the country through their local stores. He wants to bring Milca back to its Nicaraguan roots.

“If my great-grandfather were alive, he would want Milca to be available to everyone in Nicaragua,” Cuadra said. “And I don’t think he would stop until he got it.”

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”